EVOLUTION FOR DUMMIES

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          Evolution is not a fantasy nor a God. I hope you understand how tricky words can be and how interpretation affects meaning. Semantic barriers are pretty hard to overcome so I will try to be as clear as possible and I implore you to read in order to understand instead of to reply.

        Above all, I need to emphasize the difference between the “beginning of life” and “evolution through natural selection”. They are two separate subjects and must not be mistaken as the same. While one concerns the question of how the first living organism came into existence, the other explains how organisms gradually became more and more complex.

          Many people say that evolution could not have possibly happened by pure accident. First of all, evolution did not “happen” – it “is happening” and it is happening still. It is an ongoing process, not an incident that only happens once. I understand that in such context what the person really means in that first life could not have happened by accident and to that I must say yes, it most probably did. However, beginnings of life were very simple as retrospectively predicted by Charles Darwin, so the life we are looking for is the first self-replicating molecule – not a cell or amoeba, but possibly an archaic form of RNA composed of amino acids. Nobody is yet certain how exactly it happened, primarily because it happened such a long time ago, but as far as I know, similar molecules have already been created in a lab from inanimate matter. When speaking of “accidents” or “chance” it is important to remember that we live in a universe so vast that improbable events happen every day, but we cannot witness them all since we only catch a glimpse of the whole image. It is also difficult for us humans to get our heads around the vastness of time – we only ever experience 70-100 years so when we start talking in millions and billions we find it practically impossible to imagine. The age of our universe is now known to be 13.77 billion years and it has been estimated that life on Earth began 3.6 billion years ago which leaves life with staggering 10 billion years to emerge by chance. Considering how much space there is, 10 billion years is a hell of a lot of time for something to happen by chance. Randomly. I would even dare to make a far-fetched guess that it is much more likely for life to “spontaneously jump into existence” than we imagine and that it did, in fact, happen multiple times before it emerged in a stable enough form to be able to withstand the relentless forces of primordial Earth (or wherever else it might have originated).

          Once the first self-replicating molecule is created, evolution through natural selection may finally take over and although there is a random aspect of it, it does not imply that the whole process of is random as well. Here the crowds ague: “Then, if evolution randomly mixes and matches the genes, where are the countless failed experiments?” Yes, there are failed experiments walking the Earth today but most of them are not striking enough for us to notice – anything from inborn infertility for example, policephaly (condition of having more than one head), to a moth with wings not strong enough to find a mate before it dies of exhaustion  In fact any condition which makes an organism unable or less likely to breed is a failed experiment from the evolutionary point of view. Genetic mutations are random – every new organism is born with a combination of genes inherited from its parent(s) but every once in a while something accidentally goes wrong and a new mutated gene (of random properties) is written into the gene pool. Here ends the randomness. Our mutated organism is then “tested” if you like, not by some divine power or “consciousness” but by the environment it has been born into. Yet it seems to me that the word “tested” unintentionally carries the need for a “tester”, so let me rephrase and say: “Our new mutated organism has to prove itself against the environment – climate, predators etc.” It needs to survive long enough to be able to breed and pass on its mutated gene to the next generation. Think of it as a sieve into which you throw stones of random sizes – only those small enough to fit through the hole will fall down. You get non-randomly sized stones on the ground despite the fact that you used stones of all sizes. The sieve is not making any conscious decisions – it is simply a state of the stones’ environment. There is no need for an external “intelligence” to choose in what way to mutate the genes – mutations are random, but those that cause organisms not to be able to live long enough to breed are not passed on.

          Evolution is a rigorous testing process, first initiated by the random event from which the first self-replicating molecule emerged. There is a random aspect of genetic mutations to it, but it does not make the process random as a whole, because all organisms are being filtered by the environment. The underlying mechanics of life are the laws of physics – everything that exists in the universe behaves according these laws. As it is beautifully explained in professor Lawrence Krauss’ book “A Universe from Nothing: Why There is Something Rather than Nothing”, there is no need for any supernatural entity for all the matter, time, space and laws of physics to emerge (spontaneously!) out of nothing.

          Of course it is possible that the universe is so perfectly designed that all the clues leading to the designer are disguised as a scientifically explicable model. It is also possible that if there were a designer, there exists a “signature” of sorts, but so far science has not found one. Any reasonable scientist, and any reasonable person for that matter, would be thrilled to be proven wrong, but if you want to disprove something, you need to understand what it is that you are disproving.

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8 thoughts on “EVOLUTION FOR DUMMIES

    • Now tell me that life spontaneously jumping into existence is improbable. 😀 And you just reminded me of a quote of Terry Pratchett’s The Light Fantastic: “Million-to-one chances crop up nine times out of ten.”

      • I know it’s not improbable, I’ve been watching ‘Wonders of Life’ presented by Brian Cox. I know that what we call the known universe might have appeared out of nothing due to the nature of photons as described by Stephen Hawking (can’t seem to find the video at the moment though). I keep wanting to find the beginning though, so when I am told that a photon can suddenly exist and then an instant later not exist, I wonder if it is the same photon or if it didn’t exist and then not exist, but merely appeared and disappeared out of and into realms we haven’t discovered yet. That is also possible according to Richard Feynman who compares our exploration of science to learning the rules of a very complicated game of chess http://tinyurl.com/amzuaej

  1. It’s hard to appreciate small probabilities when you’re the product of their realization 🙂

    “similar molecules have already been created in a lab from inanimate matter”. Do you have an article or an experiment name handy which I can google? It sounds very promising.

    • Thank you! I am not sure the analogy was mine because it came to my mind very unexpectedly, so I probably heard it from someone else.

      As for the lab life – I have seen it in a documentary few years back, the title slipped form my mind, but I remember them scientists using inorganic chemical substances, which were then shaken and stirred and heated etc. creating conditions similar to primordial soup, and what came out of the tube in the end was primitive amino acid-like organic compounds. But again, If it indeed happened by chance we may try for the next billion years and never get there, “Synthetic” life, however, was manufactured from chromosomes made of artificial DNA by Dr Craig Venture at least two years ago, so I am sure he is now not the only persone to have done so, and as far as I know, we now have the technology to “print” new DNA strings at will in special machines. Googling ‘life in a lab’ gives you a dozen of articles. 🙂

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